“If the typical driver is driving up into their driveway at the end of the day, and hasn’t depleted the battery and they’re driving up with stored energy that they didn’t use, they haven’t gotten the full value of their investment for the day.”
When President Obama visited Southern California Edison’s electric vehicle test facility in March, he used the Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid as the main prop for the photo op. The president spoke in soaring tones about America’s energy challenges, green jobs, and the cars of tomorrow—but the expression on his face in the PR photo was disbelief if not outright disapproval.
While Ford’s marketing folks might have preferred one of Obama’s winning smiles, his grimace better reflects Ford’s rigorous and skeptical approach to making sure the Escape Plug-in Hybrid is truly ready to hit showrooms in 2012. In February, Sue Cischke, Ford’s group vice president for environment and safety, said, “Plug-in hybrids hold great promise, but do still face significant obstacles to commercialization.”
It’s All About the Battery
Ford is claiming that the plug-in hybrid version of the Escape, a fully capable small SUV, can travel 30 to 35 miles using little or no gas—if driven in town and if the batteries are charged for six to eight hours using common household current. After those 30 or so miles, the vehicle reverts to acting like a conventional Escape Hybrid—which happens to be the most fuel-efficient SUV currently on American roads.
The key to achieving those goals is the Escape Plug-in’s battery pack. “It’s all about the battery, its design, and its integration into the vehicle,” Greg Frenette, the lead engineer in Ford’s Escape Plug-in testing program, told PluginCars.com. “Its economics are absolutely critical, and you have to have the right battery source for the vehicle.” Ford has a five-year supply agreement with the Johnson Controls-Saft, the US-French battery supplier led by Mary Ann Wright, the former Ford engineer behind the original Escape Hybrid.
In other words, don’t make the batteries too big because the battery pack is the single most expensive component in a plug-in car. Higher cost is the Achilles’ heel of plug-in cars. If Ford can keep down the purchase price, deliver all-electric transportation for the lion’s share of driving, and offer it in a highly functional small SUV package, it could have a winner on its hands.
Come Home Empty
The Escape Hybrid differs from other upcoming plug-in hybrids and electric cars in two significant ways: It uses a smaller 10 kilowatt hour (kWh) lithium ion battery pack and it can blend electricity and gasoline as required by the driver’s needs. The Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Ford Focus EV—which use 16 kWh, 24 kWh and 23 kWh batteries respectively—use only electricity to power the wheels.
“When we looked at sizing the batteries, our goal was to get as much out of that battery as we could without carrying around a lot of energy that we wouldn’t be able to use,” said Frenette. “If the typical driver is driving up into their driveway at the end of the day, and hasn’t depleted the battery and they’re driving up with stored energy that they didn’t use, they haven’t gotten the full value of their investment for the day.”
General Motors is taking a nearly identical same approach with its planned small SUV plug-in hybrid—which was originally planned as Saturn and then a Buick, but will probably be released with Chevrolet branding. “The idea is you’re going to plug in at night. You’re going to get the electricity off the grid and then you’re going to deplete it in about the first 20 miles,” Larry Nitz, GM executive director of hybrid powertrain engineering, told CNet. “Why 20 miles? Because we want you to come home empty. We want you to use it all every time you go out.”
Unlike the Chevy Volt, the Ford Escape Plug-in (and GM’s future plug-in SUV) will be able to blend gas and electricity as required. “At the end of the day, we came to the conclusion that the blended approach gave us the optimal design from a battery size, package, investment, and customer utility standpoint,” Frenette said.
By the time the Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid hits showrooms in 2012, it will have been put through hundreds of thousands of miles of real world testing over a five-year period. About 20 test versions are currently being tested in utility company fleets in California, New York, Ohio, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Quebec, Canada. About 130 more will be produced for testing, thanks to a $30 million US Department of Energy grant.
In August, Scott Burgess, columnist at Detroit News, got behind the wheel of one of the test vehicles. “This model feels much more ready than any electric vehicle I've tested,” he wrote. “Quick acceleration, seamless gas engine start and stop, nice braking feel, and no giant red emergency shut off button on the dash.” Yet, Ford continues to test and evaluate the vehicle to make sure the batteries can stand the tests of durability, performance, longevity, and harsh weather.
Ford was the first American company to put in a hybrid on the market. It was the first company to offer a hybrid SUV. If it can deliver a cost-competitive and trustworthy plug-in hybrid SUV, it might finally put a smile on Obama’s face.